BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- He limps.

He is losing his right hip -- you might too, if you had started dancing before the Great Depression and had danced ever since, danced and strutted and acted and joked and twirled and thrown your arms wide and belted your insides out in song.

He danced when the movie directors told colored people to open their eyes real wide and sing about pork chops, and he danced when hotel owners would put a Negro on stage but refuse him a room for the night, and he danced when black men and women wore brilliant dashikis and glared at the pomade on his hair. He danced in front of John F. Kennedy, and he danced in front of Queen Elizabeth, and he danced on Broadway and he danced on television, and Don Rickles made fun of him and Frank Sinatra lifted shots of bourbon with him and magazines filled their pages with his marriage and his children and his rabbi and his jewelry and his great long cracked mashed nose, and still he danced. "Some people think Davis has a God complex," Dick Schaap wrote many years ago in the New York Herald Tribune, contemplating the exhausting matter of Sammy Davis Jr., "but this is absurd. On the seventh day, he works."

So he limps.

He looks fragile, coming slowly and slightly bent across the expanse of his enormous living room: a small man, skinny legs, irritated by fragility.

Next week he gets a prosthetic hip.

"If you banged like this, for 50 years, the finger would disappear," Sammy Davis Jr. says. He is smiling. One finger taps, sharp and steady, against the bartop. The bartop is long and black and Davis has lowered himself to a stool behind it, a glass of strawberry Crush in one hand, so that from where he sits he has the room stretched out before him, the piano and the organ and the wide curve of sunken couch and the fat stuffed llama that Kim Novak made for him after they were no longer being seen together. He has Marilyn Monroe's high-heeled pumps, too, encased in Lucite. The wall opens into a movie screen, the projector hidden behind two hinged paintings. He smokes a lot of cigarettes. His mustache is turning gray.

"Just go like this," Davis says: "Tap!" He makes the noise almost under his breath, lightly, like scat singing. "Bap, bap, bap. For 50 years."

Actually 58 years, since he was 3 when his father bought him his first tap shoes. He had won a dance contest. "Just two small legs flying," he wrote in the 1965 autobiography with the black silhouette on the book jacket: one arm up, the other down, shoulders shrugged, legs crossed at the knee, a dancing man.

"Entertainer," Sammy Davis Jr. says. "Saloon entertainer." The Kennedy Center press release describes him as a performing artist, crowding records and movies and live theater into the single-paragraph biography, but "entertainer" is the word Davis seems to like better. When he makes his appearance tonight as a 1987 Kennedy Center Performing Arts honoree, Davis says, it will be the first time the award has gone to someone whose principal working life has been late-night audiences, chorus girls and the places Davis calls saloons.

"My whole life has been nightclubs," Davis says. "Really nightclubs. I was lucky enough to do Broadway. I was lucky enough to do films. But I get my bread and butter, you know -- this house comes from, 'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,' and some guy in the back yelling, 'Sing "Melancholy Baby!" ' "

Davis does a quick Obnoxious Drunk, but he is gentle about it. He does not sing "Melancholy Baby" any more. He sings the others, though, "Candy Man" and "What Kind of Fool Am I" and "Birth of the Blues," and he sings them with his face and his chest and his arms all working and passionate, and he wears the rings and he talks to the audiences and the audiences love him. Critics like to sail little darts in his direction, such an easy mark, 61 years old and still weighted down by large wearable objects made of diamonds and gold, but Davis shrugs them off. Twenty-two years ago he opened his book with a paragraph three words long. He was standing on the stage of a Las Vegas casino listening to the sound from the people down below, and the three words were "They liked me."

"If the public points their collective finger at you and says, 'Boy, I like you, and I'm going to hang with you through thick and thin -- one, don't take it for granted," Davis says. "Two, don't let them down. And three, if you don't feel like dealing with it, then get out of the business. Don't be collecting all this money and telling me what a bore it is to do it. It's pretty easy, as you're driving around in a Rolls-Royce which the public is responsible for, to suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, are they coming over to bother me now?' "

Davis is doing fake English aristocrat, rolling his eyes in mock dismay. "Well, if you don't want to be bothered, stay in the house," he says. The two things a performer learns in variety -- which is another title for what I do -- is Know when to get on, and when to get off. Don't stay there and bore people to death."

Maurice Chevalier, Davis says, aged with consummate grace. "When he didn't want to work, he'd go and sit in his beautiful villa outside of Paris," Davis says. "There he'd sit, for two or three years, and when the urge hit him, he'd come back to do 9 o'clock theater in New York, two pianos, you know? He'd put his straw hat on, and he was charming, and beautiful, and then he'd disappear again. He didn't do it for the money, so much as ... that theatrical disease."

The disease. Davis nods. "It's like a bad flu bug," he says. "You get up, you're feeling good, and suddenly your knees get weak again. So there's no sense in talking about, 'Oh, I can get rid of it.' "

Some hunger, still, for public --

"Acceptance," Davis says. "Yes." His voice warms. "I have a great fear about being on stage, you know, and a hooded black image with a long bony hand will come out and go like this -- 'pssst! pssst!' "

Davis stretches one arm and makes it quaver, finger pointing, like the Ghost of Christmas Future. "And I go like this to the guy in the wings -- " mugging now as the bewildered victim, looking wildly about to see who else the finger might be pointing at -- " 'Me?' "

Now Davis nods, slowly, his face gone stony again. "The head shakes. 'Yes. You. Get off. Get off.' "

His house is on a curving Beverly Hills street where the white front walls go on for quite some time and the driveways, when one locates them, are attended by quiet uniformed men behind large gates. "I was watching you in your car," says this particular uniformed man, his manner at once mild and loaded with the necessary information, as he swings back the gate. On the hedges pink hyacinths are opening into bloom. A young man is polishing the Rolls-Royce. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh lived here, and later Anthony Newley and Joan Collins. Sammy Davis' third wife Altovise was alerted early on that both marriages had ended badly, but she moved some windows and walls around and says lightly now that she thinks that undid the curse.

They have been married for 17 years. Altovise Davis is a former dancer of unsettling good looks and energetic charm, and as she walks the house she gives a running commentary on the industry history framed and crowded on the walls. "Otto Preminger ... Swifty Lazar ... That's Bill Cosby's tennis shoe, bronzed ... Peter Sellers. Bernstein. Bob Hope. Jack Lord had that sent, just to see if it would get here."

She has stopped beneath a wall-mounted envelope on which the address, pasted on, consists almost entirely of a Hirschfeld caricature of a black man with a crooked nose and a mouth opened very wide in song. Below the face someone has written, "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"It got here," Altovise Davis says.

He golfs, although reportedly not very well. He makes exemplary chili. He collects antique guns; for some Sammy Davis Jr. was noted as one of the quicker draws in Hollywood. He plays Ms. PacMan with nearly unassailable concentration and has written into his entertainment contracts a stipulation that his rooms be supplied with a working Ms. PacMan game and unlimited quantities of strawberry Crush. His extravagance, although subdued by the years, is celebrated still. The writer-producer Aaron Spelling once admired a Davis sport coat and was startled some days later by a telephone call from a tailor who wished Mr. Spelling to know that his own copy of the sport coat was ready for fitting. He says Davis is somewhat costly to work with because every time he appears on one of Spelling's shows he orders an elaborate Italian lunch for the entire crew. "And they eat like kings," Spelling says. "And nobody moves for two hours afterward."

Davis is taller than a race jockey, but not much heavier: 115 pounds, the press accounts have always said, or maybe 120.

He goes to temple on Jewish High Holy Days.

Alex Haley interviewed him for Playboy magazine in 1966, when Davis was a famous singer, a famous dancer, a famous movie actor, a famous impressionist, a famous Jewish convert and also a famous book author, since his autobiography had become a best seller. "My mother was born in San Juan," Davis said in the interview. "So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time."

He has never been to school in his life.

He drops names: Bobby, Martin, Bugsy, Frank. Then he apologizes. "Bobby Kennedy. I'm sorry. I should have said that. Never assume anything. I hate that. I really do. Because I invented that kind of thing, you know. And you mention Bobby, you know -- or, 'I was with Frank' -- Frank who? Jesus! Don't assume I know. Tell me which Frank. Is it Frank Costello?"

We know, however, that it is not Frank Costello. It is the other Frank, the one with the better voice. It was a celebrated show business alliance, Davis and Sinatra, the black singer and the white singer hanging around together and looking extremely cool for stage audiences and motion picture cameras and newspaper photographers, and around them Dean Martin, too, and Peter Lawford, and sometimes Humphrey Bogart. Bogart and Lawford are dead, and Martin is 70 and Sinatra is 71 , so they are going to look a little undignified talking about women and liquor on stage the same way they used to, but they are going out anyway, next spring, on the road, on tour.

The Rat Pack. The three of them put on tuxedos for a press conference last week to announce the tour. "Mice pack," Dean Martin said.

"If we can get the curiosity people to come, that will be exciting," Sammy Davis says.

" 'Let's go see what these three old guys that our grandmothers told us about can do,' " Davis says the people might say.

" 'Hey,' " they might say. " 'This is the last hurrah.' "

In 1933, when he was 8 years old, Sammy Davis Jr. wore a small suit and top hat in a short motion picture called "Rufus Jones for President." In the picture he sang, and grinned, and tap-danced like a wonder; all around him, playing the characters in a young boy's dream of facing his cabinet as president, beaming black people sang about reefer and watermelons. By the time the picture was made Davis was already something of a veteran on stage: The vaudeville entertainer Will Mastin, whose troupe featured Sammy Davis Sr. as lead dancer, had taken in for public performance the boy the theater marquees began to call "Little Sammy."

His mother was a chorus dancer who separated from Sammy Davis Sr. and joined another show, so he was raised by his grandmother and his father and his audiences, which gave him, on the good days, the thing that made him live.

"I felt the whole room shifting toward me," he wrote in his autobiography, describing the night the Will Mastin Trio opened at an elegant Los Angeles club and sent Sammy Davis Jr. out to do his impressions. "I did Sinatra and they screamed. I went through the rest of the singers, and by the time I finished Satchmo they were pounding the tables so hard I could see the silverware jumping up and down ... They were reacting to everything, catching every inflection, every little move and gesture, concentrating, leaning in as though they wanted to push, to help. I was touching them. It was the most glorious moment I'd ever known -- I was really honest to God touching them."

He had a gifted dancer's body and a voice that could croon and he was, in the parlance of the day, a Negro Entertainer. In the Army white boys had sworn at him and offered him a beer bottle full of urine and painted "Coon" on his forehead while holding him down and slugging him in the belly. He broke his nose in the Army, fighting, twice. When he came out there were club owners who wouldn't let him in the front door, and club owners who escorted him through the front door and then sat him next to men who said loudly, "Jigaboo," and fancy New York parties where the guests wondered aloud whether ancestral jungle life gave colored people natural rhythm.

He married Mai Britt, a Swedish actress whom the newspaper accounts generally described as "blonde," to signal further the news that the famous black man was planning children with a white woman. By then it was 1961 and Sammy Davis Jr. had been a smash hit on several continents, but the world was still so racially loaded that the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1960 booed him loudly enough to be heard all the way across the convention hall even as blacks complained that he was trying to turn into a white person, and even the changing of the era left Davis still caught amid catcalls. Well into the 1980s, a full decade after it happened, he was still being asked to explain himself over what to this day he refers to as "the Nixon thing."

"It was a rally in Florida," Davis says. "Young Republicans, and Democrats for President Nixon. First of all, I'm not the only black celebrity that was involved in campaigning for the president. Secondly, I wasn't bucking for publicity or anything else. I became involved because of ... Robert Brown, one of Nixon's black advisers ... The night of the affair. I introduced the president, and he came on stage, as a surprise visit ... And he said. 'I just want to say that Sammy Davis Jr., I thank him very much for committing himself to our cause.' He said, 'He's a great performer.' He also said, 'He's a great American. And I want to let you know he cannot be bought.

' "You don't buy him,' he said, 'because he could probably buy the White House with his left hand alone.' I had all the rings on. And the people screamed, yelled. And I went up behind him and said, 'Thank you for saying that.' That's what I said. And grabbed him. And the pictures went, whomp."

Out of Davis' mouth comes the sound of camera flash and photographers lunging for a moment that is going to resonate for some time to come.

"And of all the pictures of that period," he says, "that's the picture."

His eyes were squeezed shut and his head only came up to Nixon's shoulder and Davis had grasped the Republican president from behind, so that he looked not only small but also fawning.

Somebody put a circle around my name, and said, 'Let's go with this,' " Davis says. He says blacks for a while nearly vanished from his audiences.

"Nobody wants to write about {the years earlier} when I went down and got off the plane, and Bull Connor came and looked in the window of the car I was driving in. Just looked at me, like this. He wanted to get a damn good look at me. Went like this."

A clamp of contempt down the face, and then the quick pantomime of the segregationist Birmingham police chief spitting straight into the ground. "The times in Mississippi when I would go down with Martin on a march or something ... We would go down on a Sunday, because most of the stuff had to be done on Sunday, because that was my day off. And you were worried about whether you'd ever get back alive, because I was on the 'git him list,' as they used to call it."

Sammy Davis did, in fact, support Richard Nixon for a while in the early 1970s. Later he said he had been mistaken, that Nixon had made certain promises that his administration never fulfilled. Davis also won major awards from the NAACP, collected honorary degrees from black colleges and gave substantial time and money to civil rights organizations. Does anybody now make public political judgments, he asks, of Michael Jackson or Prince?

" 'Is the record good?' " Davis is mincing, waving his arms, talking in dopey teen-ager's falsetto. " 'Can he do that move? Okay, that's it.' " His voice drops back to normal register, both bewildered and amused. "And 70,000 people show up."

One additional irony, please, that Sammy Davis would like to point out. "He wasn't no running buddy of mine then," he says, meaning Nixon, "and he ain't no running buddy with me now. The guy I ran with is the man that told me, 'Don't come to the White House cause you'll embarrass me' ... because I was married to a white woman. And I had to accept that. But that was the man I campaigned for, and went all out for. That was John Kennedy."

Davis shrugs, his voice only a little acid. "So you tell me where the juxtapositions are, and where the balance is, and where's the fairness," he says. "God and old age take care of a lot of it. You suddenly say to yourself, 'Wow. Well. What the hell. Are you happy? Yeah. Can you look in the mirror? Yeah. Then go out there, and do your thing, and respect what you do, and people can all respect you.' That's all you can ask for."

That and the occasional grand-scale tip of the hat: "Then along comes the Kennedy Center," Davis says, "and it's like the first thing that came to my mind was, Wow. Boy. And I started to smile. It was like someone was saying, 'You're accepted. We love you. We're giving you this for the bulk of your work. But we're also saluting a kind of show business that perhaps when you or a few others quit, or pass on, there ain't going to be no more. And if that don't make you feel warm, and forget a lot of the rancor that you might feel, I don't know what does.